Maxine Frith: We already have a Faliraki drink culture

The current rigid laws are fuelling the problems, not resolving them

The scenario of an alcoholic Armageddon has been painted by Acpo, along with the Council of Circuit Judges, in their submissions to the Home Office on the imminent relaxation of drinking hours. As a result of what is labelled "24-hour drinking", suburban high streets will fill up with lager-drenched thugs (and thugettes), drinking and fighting from dawn till dusk, while rapes, domestic violence, and serious assaults will soar. The police will be unable to cope and the courts will be overloaded with cases of drink-fuelled crime.

But these criticisms of the new law, which will come into force in three months' time, are fallacious. The number of pubs that have applied for a 24-hour license has not even reached double figures, and those that have asked permission have mainly done so for administrative reasons, so that they will not have to spend time - and money - filling in the forms for different opening hours on different occasions.

While 90 per cent of the 47,000 pubs in England and Wales have applied for an extension of their drinking hours from November, the vast majority have merely asked for an extra hour or two on Fridays, weekends and public holidays. My local village pub has asked for a late licence until 1am on Saturdays, so that it can start and finish its live music slots a little later - a move that its regular customers had asked for. Is this really going to turn the entire country into a lawless state of 24/7 drunks, or are the police and the judges simply tired and emotional about the new law?

Surely staggered closing times have to be better than the current situation. Spend a Thursday night, as I did earlier in the year, drinking in the pubs around the City in London - the big night of choice for high-flying financial workers - and you will get an idea of how farcical the present law is. By 10.30pm, the bars are four-deep with people buying in as much drink as they can before closing time. Sharp-suited young men with almost a full pint of beer will order another one, plus a chaser, and speed up their drinking to get it all down before the pub closes.

If an argument starts, after time has been called, the quarrel simply moves out into the street. There it joins the mayhem caused by everyone from all of the nearby pubs and wine bars competing for the same taxis queuing in the same takeaways, and milling about - not wishing to finish their night there and then, but with no choice in the matter. Everywhere is closed, there are few public lavatories - is it any wonder that the police are able to issue so many CCTV pictures to the media of people fighting, urinating, and vomiting in the street?

This is not to excuse the unacceptable, violent and anti-social behaviour that is inextricably linked with binge drinking, particularly among young men. But the current, rigid laws are fuelling these problems, not resolving them.

Scotland has had more relaxed drinking laws for more than two decades, and a recent review saw no reason to push back their closing times. In fact, the reforms that Scotland is considering concern the way in which alcohol is sold, rather than the time on which it is on offer. Ministers north of the border are looking at whether to ban happy-hour promotions to slow the speed with which people to drink. This seems a much more sensible way to reduce binge drinking.

When I was a student in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the bars had to close at 11 - but a price war led to one establishment paying women £1 to come in and drink triple shots (without mixers) at £1 each, between 5pm and 8pm, - with the inevitably ugly results. How can that be legal - yet an extra hour to drink in so wrong?

The market research company Mintel has been conducting regular public opinion surveys on the proposed new laws. The latest, as yet unpublished, poll of 2,000 adults found that two-thirds of people say they would take advantage of the changes to stay in a pub for longer - but not to drink any more.

The Mintel analysis predicts that the changes will lead to more choices of venue, for instance, the opening of small, continental-style cafés serving late-night drinks to people as they come out of theatres, or stop off on their way home from dinner. This is precisely the environment that the Government wants to encourage.

Contrary to popular - and populist - opinion, we do not drink any more by volume than our continental cousins - we just drink differently - and for differently, read faster. While 24-hour drinking has hit the headlines, what has been less reported is the fact that the new law offers both a carrot and a stick to the drinks industry. For example, local authorities will have much greater powers to revoke licenses if pubs and bars do attract trouble.

Interestingly, the Association of Chief Police Officers was initially in favour of the reforms and backed the Government proposals; Acpo has surprised the Home Office by this week's claims. Some in the drinks industry believe that the U-turn may be a ruse to extract more money from the Treasury for forces to police the late hours - or, if that doesn't work, to encourage ministers to offload more responsibility for policing costs on to pub owners.

Public fears around the licensing reforms have partly been driven by lurid claims about the way they will be implemented - and the media's obsession with reporting violent crime. Even the judiciary - which is supposed to be above such prejudices - seems to have been swayed by the blanket coverage of alcohol-fuelled violence in the papers. A judge interviewed on Radio 4's Today yesterday painted a graphic picture of a country plagued by mainly alcohol-driven violent crime. Yet, when asked about his sources for this, he admitted that his opinions had been at least in part formed by what he read in the newspapers, rather than by his limited experience in the crown courts.

Of course binge drinking, and all the crime, health problems and social order consequences that go along with it, is a huge problem, and later hours will make a small minority of people drink more. But the Faliraki culture is already with us. The Government is convinced that it is time to call last orders on this absurd law.

I'll drink to that.

m.frith@independent.co.uk

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